President Obama’s 2012 retooled message is about fairness. If that’s the case, the president should learn to love super PACs and their influx of money into the campaign system—a development which, if nothing else, ensures a stronger competitive balance in elections. That’s a good thing for democracy because it levels the playing field for candidates challenging entrenched incumbents with connections to moneyed interests.
The dirty secret about most campaign finance reforms is that they’re designed to protect incumbents. By decrying the federal campaign rules making it easier for wealthy donors to donate big chunks of cash, good-government groups are unwittingly backing policies that protect current officeholders.
Think about it: Presidents and members of Congress have all the perks of power at their disposal to help them raise cash. President Obama has a slew of willing and wealthy Democratic donors. Most federal lawmakers covet seats on important committees, such as Ways and Means, because of the greater opportunities to raise money.
Challengers have to work much harder to prove their viability, and even the strongest recruits usually lag well behind incumbents in fundraising. Many challengers also have to face primaries, further draining their campaign coffers before a general election.
With the explosion of super PACs, though, it’s a lot easier for candidates without those perks of power to quickly get help in closing the financial gap.
This year’s presidential race, the first in the post-Citizens United landscape, is marked by headlines demonstrating how the campaign finance laws are enhancing competition, not stifling it.
The clearest example was the Obama reelection team’s decision to belatedly embrace super PACs after looking at end-of-year fundraising reports showing that the president’s significant financial edge over Republican Mitt Romney had nearly vanished because of the GOP’s super PAC advantage. The Obama campaign ended last year with $81.8 million cash-on-hand, far more than Romney’s $19.9 million. But the Obama-aligned super PAC Priorities USA raised only $4.1 million last year while those on the other side—American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, and Romney’s super PAC—raised a combined $81 million in 2011, entirely erasing the Democratic advantage.
But Romney shouldn’t rest easy either, because the rules that are helping him compete against Obama in a general election are also working to his disadvantage in the primary contest. The former Massachusetts governor has the good fortune to be facing a field of underwhelming candidates, all of whom have struggled to raise money. In past elections, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum might well have dropped out already for lack of funds.
A funny thing happened on the way to the GOP coronation, though. Instead of Romney leveraging his advantages to wrap up the nomination, well-heeled supporters of Gingrich and Santorum have extended the fight. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s super PAC has donated $11 million to aid Gingrich. And through his Red, White, and Blue Fund, wealthy donor Foster Friess has single-handedly kept Santorum in contention, bankrolling his victories in the Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri contests. Friess is poised to keep his candidate competitive with Romney in the all-important primary in Michigan, an expensive state to advertise in.
No less important is the heat that members of Congress are feeling, thanks to emboldened outside groups. Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, acknowledges that the late influx of money from outside groups caused a handful of Democratic incumbents—all with sizable financial advantages—to unexpectedly lose in 2010.
And if there was any doubt that super PACs threaten incumbents, just look at how two senators—Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Jon Tester, D-Mont.—recently came up with creative agreements to limit the role of outside groups into their Senate campaigns. Armed with a 2-1 cash advantage over GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, Tester proposed a deal last week that would impose cash penalties if outside groups air an ad on behalf of their favored candidate.
It’s a telltale sign that Tester is worried that American Crossroads, which is prepared to spend millions in battleground Senate races, will wipe out his substantial financial edge. Liberal groups aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Tester, who has been keeping his distance from the Democratic base as he has tried to position himself in the center to boost his reelection chances.
Similarly, liberal money has been pouring into Massachusetts over the past year, from groups looking to unseat Brown, the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection. Brown creatively proposed an agreement similar to Tester’s, designed to protect his fundraising advantage over his likely Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. (She was able to eventually agree, thanks to her own breakneck fundraising pace.)
Evidence shows little connection between strict campaign finance laws and good governance. One state with liberalized campaign finance laws is Virginia, which allows unlimited donations to individual candidates, combined with disclosure requirements. The Old Dominion also happens to run among the cleanest elections in the country. Many of the states with a history of persistent corruption, such as New Jersey, have strict campaign finance rules that the well-connected exploit.
Those in power don’t want more money coming into the campaign process, because it threatens their hold on office. That’s why Obama’s campaign made such a big stink about super PACs. Obama’s lashing out against the Citizens United ruling was not out of principle. It was a recognition that the new rules threatened to upend the president’s competitive advantage.
This article appears in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.